WARNING: This story contains details about suicidal thoughts.
On a windy day in October, a mother and father sat on a bench in the park on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, frustrated and exhausted.
As a mere 13-year-old, their daughter suffers from several mental illnesses. But instead of being admitted to a treatment center, the girl is let down, her parents say.
“This system is broken. It is completely broken,” the mother said.
CBC News has agreed not to identify the family in order to protect the minor girl.
She has been diagnosed with DMDD, an abbreviation for disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, as well as ADHD, an anxiety disorder and depression, and she has been on medication for the past three years.
Symptoms of DMDD are severe temper tantrums several times a week and irritability or anger most of the day, almost every day, making daily activities difficult.
“This is not a child who is in a random state of depression. This is a child who has now resorted to suicidal thoughts on a daily basis,” the mother said.
Still, the family says the years-long struggle to get her help has failed.
Run out of opportunities
The fight began when the family moved to Newfoundland and Labrador in April 2020.
Three months earlier, they had put their daughter on a waiting list for a psychiatrist at Janeway Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. John’s. A whole year later she finally got one.
“The only reason she came to a psychiatrist was the number of times we brought her to Janeway. They finally gave in,” the mother said.
But even a therapist at Janeway and a psychiatrist have not helped. Suicidal thoughts are a common occurrence in the family home. Not knowing what to do, parents call the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s mental health crisis team on a weekly basis.
All this, says the mother, could be avoided if her daughter had a place in a treatment center. But the family says they have experienced one denial after another.
“We made it believe there is no room in Janeway to help,” the mother said.
This is how they felt until July, when their daughter was admitted.
But after just one week, they received a phone call – their daughter was released again.
“We tried to contest to pick her up,” the mother said. “We were told that if we did not come and pick her up, the child welfare service would be involved.”
They say they are not sure why the teenager was sent home. “There was no follow-up after she was released. We have been in complete limbo for everything,” the mother said.
Again, hospital visits and police calls became the family’s only resource.
“They talk to her and say, ‘Well, she’s no problem. She’s not a threat, she’s not a threat to herself,’ so they send her home, ‘” the father said. “But here she is, saying she wants to kill herself.”
In their desperation, the parents contacted Health Minister John Haggie and various other politicians.
Haggie declined an interview. In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Health and Community Services said “this is a disturbing situation and [the department] fully [understands] the unrest the family is experiencing. “
Paul Dinn, who represents the Topsail-Paradise district in the House of Assembly and is the progressive conservative health critic, was one of the few who tried to help, parents say.
Dinn says stories like this frustrate him.
“To be honest with you, I get a lot of those kinds of stories,” Dinn said. “My heart goes out to them. I want to do what I can, but it gets to a point where someone else has to step forward and make a real change.”
The provincial government, Dinn said, needs to meet mental health needs, especially among children and teens.
“There is something like 1.2 million children in Canada who are dealing with mental health issues, and only somewhere around 20 percent actually get the help they need,” Dinn said.
The parents were not willing to give up and applied to the Tuckamore Center in Paradise. The Eastern Health facility offers 24-hour treatment for up to 12 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18.
After a lengthy application process and an additional 10 weeks of waiting for the construction board’s decision, the family was also denied entry. The parents have received a copy of the letter describing the decision.
The letter says the teenager “does not demonstrate” mental health problems or “high-risk behaviors” such as self-harm or a “dangerous lifestyle.”
The mother told CBC News that she does not understand how grabbing knives and vocalizing thoughts of suicide is not dangerous behavior, and says she believes intervention should happen before her child begins to harm herself.
‘Just a little crazy’
Dinn calls the response “ridiculous,” but suspects staff were bound by limited space and resources.
“In many respects, the parent who is with that child on a daily basis probably knows what’s going on, more than any assessment,” Dinn said, suggesting that for some facilities, the attitude seems to be “sorry, but you are not “crazy enough to be in here.”
Using the term “crazy”, Dinn refers to Embracing Experiences, a report released by the Canadian Mental Health Association in May that describes people’s experiences with mental health care in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Being “too crazy” or “not crazy enough” to receive care was one of the concerns in the report.
“One quote was, ‘I have to have the right kind of crazy.’ It’s sad,” Dinn said. “When you hear such comments, it’s confusing.”
Eastern Health, which oversees both Janeway Hospital and the Tuckamore Center, would not do an interview with CBC. In a statement, the health authority said it could not publicly discuss a patient’s case, but noted that admissions are based on psychiatric assessments.
It went on to say that housing treatment is not suitable for every mental illness, as “young people must be medically and psychiatrically stable and cognitively able to cope with the demands of the treatment program for maximum benefit.”
In its statement to the CBC, the Department of Health and Community Services said people get the care that suits their individual needs and that other mental health services are available to the public, such as Doorways and Bridge the gApp, a mobile app focused on mental health.
But better long-term care needs to be available, Dinn says. “It’s not solved with a pill, it’s not solved with a website, it’s not solved with a call line.”
The girl’s mother agrees that these are systemic issues that the government should address.
“Come up and help people. I guarantee we are not the only people out here who are crying out for help,” the mother said.
“This is unacceptable. I will fight for her until I die. I will fight.”
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, call the 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-737-4668 or the 24-hour Kid’s Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.